On the Mumbai-Goa Rajdhani, with Covid in the air

Brian de Souza | Updated on May 22, 2020

Jottings from a train journey tell a worrisome tale of health and hygiene pitfalls, as the lockdown is set to lift

The text messages from the Railways in the run-up to my journey were relentless and reinforced: no linen and blankets, just packaged water, and the need for the all-important Covid screening. All this only added to my already overwrought nerves.

I was heading out from Mumbai to Goa on the coveted Rajdhani, which was part of a special train service planned by the Railways for those keen on heading back home, since all other modes of transport had largely come to a standstill. As I locked my Mumbai apartment and began the cab drive towards the station, Maximum City looked anything but that. Roads were empty and the surroundings looked eerie with cops dotting the landscape with their masks. Would Mumbai survive the onslaught of Covid-19, I wondered.

The Rajdhani was due to arrive only three hours later when I reached the station at 2 am. On a rough count, there were around 300 passengers on the platform with some half asleep on their luggage. Chalk-marked circles were a grim reminder of Covid-19 and the need for social distancing. The faces at the station were a mix of hope and exhaustion.

Whither hygiene?

To my shock and surprise, there were no cops or rail officials for the screening, which should have ideally begun well before the train arrived. Nothing of the kind happened as the Rajdhani happily rolled in and people rushed into their compartments with no thought of social distancing.

Someone had laid out his bed sheet on my berth and I asked for an exchange. While this is par for the course in Indian rail journeys, this was stretching it to absurd limits in “pandemic” times when hygiene should have been paramount. As I took a deep breath to control my irritation, I noticed that the compartment was littered with empty bottles and the floor clearly dirty.

Keeping my paranoia aside, I sanitised my berth and pulled out a small diary to keep my travel stress at bay. The good part was that the typical Indian family bonhomie en route did wonders to lessen my anxiety. Yet, there were no railway officials or attendants to supervise activity within.

A tea-seller, experimenting with a non-contact ready-to-drink brew, had few patrons. The other bit of activity was the predictable rush for the rest room which, shockingly, was unclean, with sinks loaded with tissue paper residue.

The train was coming in from Delhi and during this long journey, the waste generated was naturally considerable. Despite this, it was quite evident that the rail authorities had no plans to ensure a clean/safe environment within.

Little attention to safety

At the final destination, Madgaum, passengers were lined up bogie by bogie to pay for the mandatory Covid test mandated by Goa. The next step was to head out to the hospital for testing and we were promptly packed off into an old, decrepit bus which had seen better days.

In Goa’s sweltering heat, the atmosphere within the bus was clearly oppressive, especially when everything had come a standstill for over two hours. Things were as exasperating at the testing hospital where there was no messaging on procedures. Nobody had a clue about where to sit and how to proceed for testing.

In all fairness, it was not as if everything was a mess but the authorities should have been more empathetic about the fact that the Rajdhani passengers were anxious. It had been a long train journey and the hours of waiting in the bus literally broke everyone’s back. The silver lining in the cloud, at least from my point of view, was the Covid test emerging negative which meant I could be back home safe and sound.

Yet, it was apparent that throughout this ordeal, there was zero attention paid to health and safety. The lack of required health messaging on an essential public transport service raised questions on how committed the Central and State governments were to safeguards against Covid-19. And to think that I was among the privileged lot travelling in the upmarket Rajdhani: just thinking of the huge crowds in three-tier bogies was frightening.

There were some positive moments during the journey to Goa. Air in the bogies was changed regularly, so you would find yourself sweating a bit and then feeling cool. Also, the constant chatter between passengers, while ensuring that their masks were in place, helped stave off the spectre of Covid-19.

The special Rajdhanis are being operated as an experiment that can be formalised down the line for full-scale operations. Yet, without health messaging, there is a serious lacuna for passengers. With practical measures, and a focus on basic hygiene, these trains can be safe for both the well-heeled and the aam aadmi.

The writer is a Mumbai-based communications professional

Published on May 22, 2020

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